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Travelers wait in long lines to pass through a security checkpoint in Denver International Airport on Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2018. Photo by David Zalubowski / AP Photo

DIA’s Ongoing Construction Is a Nightmare. Here’s How to Navigate It This Holiday Season

From where to park to how to skirt the lengthy check-in lines and where the terminal restrooms are located these days, here's everything you need to know to stay merry while traveling this holiday season.

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In case you haven’t heard, Denver International Airport is building a “terminal of the future.” After seeing record-breaking passenger travel for the last couple years, DIA began renovations on its terminal in July 2018 in order to accommodate the ever-expanding number of passengers.

The renovations were initially expected to be completed by 2021. However, in August, DIA terminated its agreement with the contractor they initially hired due to disagreements about the project’s budget and delays, among other issues. While they named a new contractor to take over the project last month (Denver City Council approved the $136 million plan on November 18), the disruption has caused the timeline to be stretchedit is now expected to be completed in 2024.

It will surely be an improvement when it’s finished five years from now, but that doesn’t help matters right now. I was at DIA a couple weeks ago to pick up a friend, and within the span of about 10 minutes witnessed multiple people walking, exasperated, up to one of the airport’s ambassadors and asking the most basic questions imaginable: “Where can I check in for my flight?” “Where’s the nearest restroom?”

Traveling is stressful enough under normal circumstances, but as we all know, chaos compounds exponentially around the holidays. Let me put it bluntly: It won’t be pleasant to experience DIA this holiday season (although the airport’s PR reps pointed out that they’re building an ice skating rink and launching a “beer passport” this holiday season—both of which do indeed sound like a good time).

In order to help you navigate the chaos and get where you need to go (without having a meltdown), follow these tips culled from my time spent exploring the terminal with Alex Renteria, DIA’s public information officer, and Shellee Casiello, the airport’s communications manager, earlier this month.

Deal with as much as you can online, before getting to DIA.
Airlines have been encouraging us do this for years now, but fact is you’re either the kind of person who checks in and gets your boarding pass online or you’re not. I’m not. But it might make sense for you to do it this year, especially if you are carrying on and don’t need to wait in line to drop your bag. No printer? No problem. DIA also accepts mobile boarding passes.

Give yourself the full two hours.
Official word is you don’t need more than two hours, but you do need the full two hours. Consider yourself warned.

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Plan ahead to find your ideal drop-off or parking location.
Once you’re at the airport, the main obstacles on your path to inner peace (otherwise known as a cocktail on your flight) are: Getting your boarding pass (if you didn’t do it online), checking your bag, and getting through security. If you can get dropped off right by the door to your airline, do that. The ticket counters are all still right there on Level 6. If you’re driving yourself, there are a few different lots and garages where you can park at the airport. Check out the electronic signs along Peña Boulevard, which update with parking availability info in real time, to figure out which is your best bet. You can also view parking information online in advance. If you’re taking a taxi or a ride share app like Uber or Lyft, you’re in luck—you’ll be dropped off on Level 5 right outside your airline.

Utilize the bag drops!
If you’re taking the A Line or SkyRide Bus to DIA, here is a special hack just for you: There’s a free “bag-drop” counter located right at the transit platform on Level 1 across from the Westin hotel. The airport contracts with a third-party outfit named Bags Inc. for this service, and it is available seven days a week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. 

Bags Inc. has also operated bag-drop locations at the Mt. Elbert and Pikes Peak Shuttle Lots, located just outside the airport bounds. Starting Monday, November 25, this bag-drop location will be moved to 75th Avenue, so it can be accessed by all passengers on their way to the terminal, instead of just those who are parking at the shuttle lots. This bag drop will be open Saturday through Thursday from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Friday from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. Bonus: You can also get your boarding pass printed at the bag-drops (again, if you didn’t do it in advance online—but you should really do it online).

For all bag-drop locations, your bags must be checked a minimum of 90 minutes before your flight. Only people flying domestic on United, Southwest, Delta, American, and Spirit are eligible to use the bag drop.

Now you’re ready to brave security.
To get through security as quickly as possible, check the screens displaying security line wait times posted near the airline ticket counters—again, on Level 6—and you can pick the shortest line based on that information. The checkpoint wait times can also be found online. Apparently word is out on the Bridge Security checkpoint, and it can no longer be counted on to be the shortest line. There are also some dystopian automated screening lanes at North security if for some reason you want your airport experience to be more like the self-check out at King Soopers. 

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Of course, you can get through security faster by taking advantage of TSA Precheck or Clear, if you’re fancy and on top of it. Though, these services are only available at the North and South security checkpoints, not Bridge (sorry Frontier flyers).

The security lines are pretty easy to get to and, in my experience, baggage claim is also intuitive and located where it is supposed to be. Notably, the airport is installing a series of colorful arrows on the ground this month, which should help with basic navigation. According to airport representatives, these arrows will guide passengers to specific airline ticket counters and security.

Still can’t find your way? Don’t hesitate to ask an ambassador. Honestly any excuse to talk to one of these kind people—who can be found at kiosks and dressed in easy-to-spot checkered blue vests—should be taken. They are there to help you.

One final word of advice…
Obviously in some situations this can’t be helped, but if you can help it: Don’t eat or use the restroom in the terminal. If you must use the restroom and it’s not going to make you late, they are located in the terminal at either end. But you should expect them, too, to be crowded. You will likely be happier (and less stressed) if you wait until you’re in the concourse.

As far as food, there are a few options in the terminal and they will all be crowded: The Cantina Grill on Level 6, plus a grab-and-go place and a Subway on the Level 5. But I’m telling you, you’re going to get stuck behind a family with three kids, all of whom will be outfitted in branded apparel for their assorted athletic extracurriculars, and they’re going to take one hour and forty-five minutes to order sandwiches, and then you’re going to miss your flight. If you wait until you get into the concourse there are lots of options and many of them include beer, which I have a hunch you will require after tackling the terminal.

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Godspeed. May that scary horse with the demon eyes bless us, every one.

Correction appended, 11/21/19: This article has been updated to reflect that the bag drops originally at the Shuttle Lots will be moved to a new location prior to the holidays. This article has also been updated to clarify DIA’s relationship with Bags Inc. and to add more information about the arrows the airport is installing to assist with navigation.

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